Madam Speaker, I first want to say that I will be sharing my time with the member for Toronto—Danforth.
The motion by the representatives of the Progressive Conservative Party provides an opportunity for a valuable debate not only on the quality of water, but on the organization of the Canadian federation and on the allocation of responsibilities among the various levels, the federal government, the provinces and the municipalities, in the management of a resource as vital as water.
The opposition motion proposes national standards that would be not only directives or recommendations but requirements enshrined in a safe water act.
Nothing separates us from the Progressive Conservative Party in our concern for the need to protect a safe environment and the right to safe and quality drinking water throughout Canada. I consider it a fundamental right, which we must help guarantee, at all levels of government.
When we see the tragedies and problems occurring in Walkerton, North Battleford and other regions in Canada, I think it is high time we took a look at water quality, of course, but also at the way we manage our environment and our most precious heritage, which helps us survive each day, namely, our air, our water and our land, the various contaminants and categories of waste.
A debate on water quality is of interest to all Canadians. It gives the government an opportunity to make known its share of the responsibility in the area.
Let me first say that our government has promised to increase funding for research into the effects of toxins on our health, including research on endocrine disrupting chemicals, on heavy metals that pose special risks for children, on specific toxic substances and on the cumulative effects of all toxins on our health. This is a commitment that we made, and is one that we will fulfil. It is a commitment that will have a concrete impact on water quality across the country.
Moreover, Health Canada will continue and enhance work on the drinking water guidelines. These guidelines are developed based on lifetime exposure to a specific contaminant, thereby addressing concerns with cumulative effects.
Health Canada's safe environments program acts as the technical secretariat to the federal-provincial subcommittee on drinking water, the entity responsible for the development of guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality. The guidelines establish health based limits for contaminants of drinking water. They are meant to apply to all drinking water supplies, both public and private, whether the source water comes from a lake or river, or from a well.
The subcommittee, which includes representatives from all provinces and territories as well as the federal government, is a very good example of federal-provincial-territorial collaboration in place to ensure the safety of all Canadians.
What is Health Canada's role in this subcommittee? Health Canada develops the scientific documents used by the subcommittee to establish acceptable concentrations for contaminants in drinking water. Health Canada provides provincial and territorial governments with the best scientific data on biological, chemical and radiological contaminants found in drinking water.
Over the past thirty years, this system has worked well and Health Canada has developed a strong working relationship with each of the provinces and territories. Health Canada provides the provinces and territories with the best scientific data available and co-ordinates the flow of information across the country.
These guidelines are used in a number of ways. They are truly the cornerstone for all drinking water quality across Canada.
The provinces and territories use them as the benchmark for their own enforceable standards, guidelines and objectives. Each province and territory has developed its own method to incorporate the guidelines to best fit its needs.
Some provinces have developed regulations, based on the guidelines, while others require that all national health-based guidelines be met.
Guidelines are also used at the federal level with respect to areas of federal jurisdiction, such as in connection with first nations, or on federal lands, and so forth.
These guidelines also set the standard for the quality of bottled water and water used in food production.
These guidelines are very much a work in progress: as new research, monitoring data, analytical methodology or treatment processes become available, existing guidelines can be and are re-evaluated and kept current.
By definition, these guidelines are not mandatory. However, I would like to take a moment to tell the House that to date this method has been very largely effective in safeguarding the quality of our drinking water. Canada is the second largest country in the world, with an incredibly diverse geography, and there are many differences between the regions with respect to source water quality, availability and quantity.
The guidelines developed by the joint committee must be applied appropriately in the various provinces and territories in order to be effective. Risk management in this case is best done by the people who know their territory best.
The federal government acknowledges that the provinces know their water best and that they can use the federal guidelines in the most effective way.
If the federal government were to mandate that every province follow the guidelines, line by line, or face stiff penalties, some provinces would spend a lot of public money testing substances that are not even found in their territory.
By leaving it up to the provinces to interpret the guidelines in the way that makes sense and is appropriate for them, the federal government allows them to make the most appropriate risk management decisions, and also gives them an opportunity to assume their responsibilities in making the most judicious use possible of taxpayers' money by not testing for substances that might not even exist in their territory.
It bears repeating that the provinces know their geographical territory best, and are best left to control the quality of their drinking water.
In summary, I wish to say that the safety of Canadian water requires a multi-layered approach, which includes the protection of the source water, the effectiveness of the water treatment process, the training of treatment plant operators, the distribution of the treated water and the safety of the materials that come in contact with drinking water throughout the entire process.
All these elements cannot be the responsibility of just one level of government or of the federal government alone. A division of responsibilities has become established over the years, which is also consistent with our constitution and which requires the provincial and municipal levels to play a role, with the support, as I mentioned, of the federal government through the work being done by Health Canada.
I am proud of what we have been able to achieve in collaboration with the provinces and territories. I believe the steps we have all taken in light of the recent tragedies will ensure we maintain the safety of our drinking water supplies for all Canadians.
I would ask for unanimous consent of the House to move the following amendment:
That the motion be amended by replacing the words “to establish” with the following: “respecting their jurisdiction to ensure”.